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Marriage Promotion for Refugees Living in the U.S.

On May 3, the Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration for Children and Families (ACF) announced that it is dedicating approximately $4.4 million in federal taxpayer dollars to the 2006 Refugee Healthy Marriage Program. Specifically, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) intends to grant money to organizations that will implement programs to form, promote, and encourage marriages among refugees who have resettled in the U.S.1 This program is yet another variation of the marriage promotion theme running throughout and the Administration’s policies and seems to court applications from the socially conservative organizations allied with the Bush Administration.

The crisis situations refugees are fleeing and the resettlement process itself typically put tremendous strain on family relationships among refugees, and appropriate counseling and services must be made available to them. In fact, a number of well-regarded organizations do receive federal dollars to provide important services to these families such as couples counseling and domestic violence prevention education.

The current Administration, however, has poured millions of dollars into marriage-promotion initiatives claiming that marriage solves a multitude of serious and complicated social issues such as poverty, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and HIV/AIDS among others. Marriage promotion as a part of Welfare Reform in this country has been criticized for locking poor women into relationships that they do not want and that may even be detrimental or abusive.2 Similarly, marriage promotion for refugees cannot be seen as a substitution for access to food, housing, healthcare, job training, and other immediate needs.

This stream of funding explicitly encourages refugee service providers to partner with organizations with expertise and experience in marriage education. In other federal grant areas, extensive support for marriage-promotion is typically granted to organizations based on conservative ideology rather than a proven track record of success. For example, in global HIV/AIDS prevention, the Children’s AIDS Fund has received at least $1 million to provide HIV/AIDS related “risk avoidance prevention messaging,” despite being found “not suitable for funding” by the expert committee hired by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to review applications. The organization most likely received the grant because of its ties to the first lady of Uganda , Janet Musevini, an outspoken abstinence-until-marriage proponent. Likewise, Concerned Women for America has received at least $200,000 to work with five Mexican organizations to combat human trafficking for sexual exploitation despite the fact that it has no experience in this arena.

“We are concerned that this Refugee Healthy Marriage program is just yet another cash cow for the Administration’s political base,” said William Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS. “Providing relationship support for existing couples is important. Preventing domestic violence is important. Promoting marriage, however, as a solution to the hardship faced by refugees is a farce.”


  1. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families, Refugee Healthy Marriage Program Initial-Cooperative Agreement, HHS-2006-ACF-ORR-ZF-0110, 3 May 2006, accessed 6 June 2006, <>.
  2. Anne Menard Director, National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Oliver Williams, Ph.D. Director, Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community, “It’s Not Healthy If It’s Not Safe: Responding to Domestic Violence Issues within Healthy Marriage Programs,” paper presented at Building Bridges: Marriage, Fatherhood, and Domestic Violence , May 2006, accessed 6 June 2006, <>.